If you were to go skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort in Montana, a resort on land owned by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), you might come across a statue known as “Big Mountain Jesus”:
The reason that statue is allowed to be on the property is because the USFS gave the Knights of Columbus a “Special Use Permit” in 1953 to build and maintain a memorial to honor WWII veterans. However, the Knights decided to build Big Mountain Jesus because “veterans from the 10th Mountain Division… wanted to commemorate their fallen comrades with a statue that evoked memories of the many religious shrines and statues they had seen in the mountain communities of Europe.”
Well, isn’t that convenient… We didn’t intend to build a statue to Jesus. The veterans requested it!
In any case, it’s been up there for about 60 years. There’s no doubting the religious significance of it, since people have held church services and weddings near the statue.
That’s why the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a lawsuit to take down the statue in 2011, claiming it represented an establishment of religion by the government.
Earlier this week, a judge at a federal district court in Montana issued his decision: Jesus can stay put (PDF).
To the extent Big Mountain Jesus may have had some religious significance at the time of its construction by the Knights of Columbus, and may have provided from time to time spiritual inspiration or offense to some, over the course of the last 60 years the statue has become more of an historical landmark and a curiosity.
The government neither owns the statue nor exercises control over the property on which it is located. Big Mountain Jesus constitutes private speech reflecting the personal views of its private owners and therefore cannot be seen by the reasonable observer as reflecting government promotion of religion.
In summary, the Court finds that the USFS renewed the Special Use Permit because the statue is steeped in the origins and history of Big Mountain and the surrounding community, which constitutes a legitimate secular purpose.
You see, the statue of Jesus has historical significance… even though a religious organization put it up for religious reasons. And it’s a goddamn giant statue of Jesus. The judge even said, “Unquestionably, Big Mountain Jesus is a religious symbol commonly associated with one form of religion.”
I guess none of that matters.
Part of Judge Dana Christensen‘s decision hinges on the fact that no one complained about Big Mountain Jesus for 60 years — much like no one complained about a Ten Commandments monument in Van Orden v Perry until it was too late.
Of course, he ignores the fact that atheists are often afraid to file lawsuits like these because it would “out” them and possibly hurt their families or careers…
FFRF tried to argue against that whole “tradition” point in 2011:
“This has been an illegal display. The lease should have never happened,” [FFRF co-president Annie Laurie] Gaylor said. “Just because a violation is long-lasting doesn’t make it historic. It makes it historically bad. It makes it worse. It makes it all the more reason to get rid of it.”
Even if there’s a legal precedent to this, it makes little sense to me. Just because something has been around for a long time doesn’t make it okay. Just because no one complained about it before doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth complaining about.
This is the same argument Christians used when Jessica Ahlquist tried to take down her school’s religious mural: It’s been there for decades and no one complained before… so it should stay!
U.S. District Court Judge Ronald R. Lagueux explained in his ruling that that was a spurious argument:
While all agree that some traditions should be honored, others must be put to rest as our national values and notions of tolerance and diversity evolve. At any rate, no amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction.
Who knows why Christensen — an Obama appointee — chose to ignore that line of thought.
Gaylor, in response to the ruling, was stunned:
“The judge said the statue has no religious purpose, but the Knights of Columbus said they put it up to erect a shrine,” Gaylor said. “He turns the First Amendment on its head to claim a Jesus statue is not religious.”
“I couldn’t be more disappointed in an Obama appointee,” Gaylor said. “He might as well be a Bush appointee.”
Simon Brown of Americans United for Separation of Church and State said the obvious when the lawsuit was initially filed, but it’s worth repeating now:
“If the Knights of Columbus really want[ed] to honor veterans, they [would] respect the principles of the Constitution that those veterans fought for and move the statue.”
FFRF will likely appeal the ruling.
(via Religion Clause)